Rabbi Yishayahu bem Avraham
(The Holy ShLaH)
by Shlomo Gurevich
R. Yishayhu ben Avraham Ha-Levi (about 1565, Prague - 1630, Tiberias), known
under the name of “SheLaH Ha-Kadosh” (The Holy SheLaH, which is the initials
of the title of his most famous book “Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit” -Two Tablets of
the Covenant"), son of R. Avraham ben Shabtai Sheftel, author of “Emek
Berakha” - prominent scholar, rabbi, kabbalist, a leader of his generation,
one of the great framers of Jewish ethics and morality in the modern era.
Still a child he moved to Poland with his father who became his first
teacher. His other teachers in Poland were R. Meir ben Gedalyahu (MaHaRaM)
of Lublin, one of the leading Polish halakhic authorities, R. Shlomo ben
Yehudah Leib from Cracow, one of the most famous teachers in Polish yeshivot,
and R. Yehoshua Falk Ha-Cohen, the author of the book "SaMa".
He married Chaya, daughter of wealthy R. Avraham Maul from Vienna and
apparently all his life he lived in favorable material conditions, and thus
he could spend a considerable part of his income on charity and books which
were very expensive in that period and affordable by just a few. He could
also afford himself to invite his numerous disciples to his table. Very soon
he became one of the leaders of the Jewish community of Poland, known for
his expert knowledge of Torah and Talmud. In 1590 he took part in one of the
meetings of the Council of Four Lands in Lublin, and his signature appears
under the decree condemning the purchase of rabbinic positions.
In 1597 R. Yishayahu published the book “Emek Berakha” written by his father
and to which he added his own commentary under noticeable Kabbala influence.
This work made the name of R. Yishayahu well known in the Jewish world, and
he received offers to take high rabbinic positions in major Jewish
In 1600 R. Yishayahu became A.B.D. of Dubno, in 1602 - A.B.D. and Head of
the yeshiva in Ostraha (Volyn), in 1606 – A.B.D. in Frankfurt-am-Main. In
1614, together with other Jews, he was expelled from Frankfurt shortly
before the Jewish quarter was plundered. He then returned to his native
Prague. Here he was a dayan, head of the yeshiva and shared the position of
the rabbi of Prague with R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntshits (R. Shlomo ben Aharon
of Leczyca, the author of "Keli Yaqar") until 1620 when his wife died. Soon
after her death R. Yishayahu left for Eretz Israel.
In accordance with family tradition R. Yishayahu kept his intention to go to
the Holy Land in secret until the last moment. He did so for he did not wish
to confuse the whole community which would try to dissuade him from leaving.
Only his eldest son knew about his plans and asked him to change his mind,
but in vain: R. Yishayahu was determined to go to the Land of Israel, where
he hoped to achieve two goals: to strengthen the Jewish community and to
study Kabbala which then played a central role in his philosophy. This is
clearly discernible in his most important work, "Two Tablets of the
Covenant" which he began to write in Prague shortly before his departure in
1621 and completed in 1623 in Jerusalem.
The first part of R. Yishayahu's route was to Frankfurt, he evidently wished
to say good-bye to the community which was so important to him. From
Frankfurt he travelled to Venice, and, finally, embarked by boat from Italy.
In 22 days, on the day of Rosh Ha-Shana (Jewish New Year) the boat arrived
in Tripoli where heavy fighting prevented him from disembarking. A group of
armed men pursued him, but he managed to escape and set sail for Syria,
where he went ashore just before Yom Kippur. He was received with much
warmth and honor by local Sephardi communities, which he modestly attributed
to his father's notoriety, but which in fact was attributable to his own. In
Damascus and Caleb (Aleppo) he looked for books on Kabbala and, quite
surprisingly, he found one in the house of R. Shmuel Vital, a son of famous
Damascus Rabbi Chaim Vital. This was the manuscript of the latter’s book “Ez
Ha-Chaim” (“The Tree Of The Life”).
Two delegations came to R. Yishayahu - from Safed and Jerusalem, both of
which asked him to be the Ashkenazi rabbi of their town. Despite the
kabbalistic tradition in Safed, he preferred Jerusalem – “because of the
great holiness of this city”. Another reason for his decision could be that
walled Jerusalem seemed to be much safer than Safed which was not surrounded
In 1621 R. Yishayahu arrived in Jerusalem, after visiting Safed "in order
not to hurt its community" and pray at the graves of its great kabbalists.
He almost immediately became Ashkenazi A.B.D of Jerusalem and shortly
thereafter remarried, evidently prompted by the kabbalistic belief of the
time that an unmarried Jew had no right to live in Eretz Israel. He was also
appointed the head of the Ashkenazi yeshiva, thus strengthening his
leadership in the Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem. He enjoyed high esteem
and respect with the city's Sefardi community as well. In 1625, together
with 15 other Jewish scholars, rabbis and communal workers, he was
imprisoned by the Pasha (Ibn Faruh) – a local Muslim ruler appointed by the
Turkish Sultan. They were held in prison for about two and a half weeks,
starving and tortured, until an exorbitant sum of money had been paid as a
R. Yishayahu came back to Jerusalem and very soon discovered that after the
payment of the ransom both the Ashkenazi and Sefarfi communities found
themselves deep in debt, and he tried to improve the situation with help
from abroad. But it was clear that to stay in Jerusalem was very dangerous,
and along with the other leaders of the Ashkenazi community, he fled to
He lived his remained years in Safed and Tiberias, where he died and was
buried by R Yohanan ben Zaccay and his disciples who put stones on the grave
which lacked a matzevah (tombstone). R. Yishayahu’s grave lies close to that
of Ha-RaMBaM. His second wife, Chava, a daughter of R. Eleazer, and their
daughter died soon after his death. From his first marriage he had two sons,
R. Shabtai Sheftel and R. Yakov, and a daughter. R Yakov married Sarah, a
daughter of the famous R. Eleazer, one of the prominent Cracow scholars, a
son of R. Naftali Chayot, A.B.D. of Prague. R.Yakov began to publish his
commentaries on his father's siddur "Shaar Ha-Shamaim", but he died before
publication had been completed. In Cracow R. Yishayahu's daughter, Nechama,
was married to R. Chaim Faivel, a son of famous R. David Zakharya, called "Mendelin".
R. Yishayahu who descended from a well-to-do family and married into an even
wealthier one, lived a comfortable life, not knowing what need or economic
dependence is. In Eretz Israel, too, there was a servant in his spacious and
well furnished apartment, which was allotted to him by the Ashkenazi
community of Jerusalem. For his part he refused to receive a salary for his
work and spent much on philanthropy, particularly to support Torah scholars.
R. Yishayahu made a great contribution to the development and strengthening
of Ashkenazi communities in Eretz Israel. He lent a big sum of money to the
community of Jerusalem which remained in debt to his daughter even after his
R. Yishayahu came to Eretz Israel for the purpose of dedicating himself to
studying Torah and fulfilling the mitzvoth connected with life in Eretz
Israel. He was happy that he had been privileged to teach his fellow Jews
Torah in Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, and in Jerusalem, the Holy City, to
instruct them and to guide them to love and fear the Lord, “faithfully and
with all one’s heart”. He hoped and planned that thousands of Jews would
come after him, and he himself would achieve great heights in Torah learning
and administration of community life. He hoped for the revival of the
Jerusalem Ashkenazi community under his leadership and as a result of his
extensive contacts with Ashkenazi communities in the Diaspora.
By reason of R. Yishayahu’s profound personal respect for eastern Sefardi
communities, they influenced him greatly as a result of his encounter with
their culture, customs and tradition. He was happy when he had an
opportunity to pray with and provide a drasha in a sephardic congregation,
“in the Holy Language, very clearly”, and he adopted some of their
In Eretz Israel the works of Ha-ARI (R. Yitzhak Luria), R. Moshe Cordovero
and R. Yosef Karo made a strong impression on R. Yishayahu. He called them
“three great holy ones….true angels of the Almighty”. His study of the
writings of these scholars reinforced the kabbalistic elements in his works.
For him Kabbala was a teaching of the “sages of truth who have been
initiated into the secrets of the Almighty passed in an unbreakable chain
from man to man beginning with Moshe Rabenu (Moses) on Mount Sinai”.
R. Yishayahu believed that the moment of revelation of the secret knowledge
contained in the book "Zohar" as part of the preparations for the
approaching geula (Salvation) had come: “this last generation is allowed to
learn the Secret Teachings in public because they are close to geula and
will make no errors”. In accordance with this, in his approach to Torah
learning, the fulfillment of mitzvoth and questions of faith R. Yishayahu
prefers RaMBaN’s and other kabbalists' point of view as opposed to that of
RaMBaM and other rationalists.
The best known of all R. Yishayahu’s writings is his pioneering work
“SheLaH” – “Two Tablets of the Covenant“. The first edition was published in
Amsterdam in 1649. Later this book was reissued at least 10 times. Some of
these editions were made possible by his son – R. Shabtai Sheftel who added
to it his preface – "Vavei Ha-Ammudim".
The title page of Amsterdam (1698) edition of "Shnei Lukhot Ha-brit
Another important work by R. Yishayahu is his commentary to siddur "Sha’ar
Ha-Shamaim" (The Gates of Heaven) which was published by his great grandson
in 1717 also in Amsterdam. The title of the siddur originated from the words
contained in parashat ha-shavua (weekly portion of the Torah) "Vayetzeh"
about the time he arrived in Jerusalem: "How awful this place is, this is
nothing but the House of G-d and this is the Gate of Heaven" (Bereshit,
His book "Shmot Gittin" deals with importance of monitoring carefully the
correct spelling of names in the work done by sofrei gittin – scribes of
Later, besides his glosses to his father’s "Emek Brakha" (Cracow, 1597) and
"Yesh Nohelin" (1617), R. Yishayahu wrote commentary to the book "Mordekhai"
on the Talmudic tractate "Mo'ed", only a part of which was published in 1757
under the title "Bigdei Yesha", chiddushim to "Moed", which constituted a
response to "Chiddushei Ha-RITBA" and a commentary on the calendar of
Mordekhai ben Hillel, a part of which was published together with "Emek
Brakha" in 1787. Also his "Letters from Eretz Israel" which contain valuable
autobiographical material, the article "Mitzvot Tefillin" and commentary on
the "Zohar" have come down to us. Much biographical data is contained in the
work of his son, Shabtai Sheftel, "Vavei Ha-Ammudim".
Generations of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe until the end of 18th
century walked in the light of the Holy SheLaH. It is very probable that
this work influenced greatly the foundations of chassidism as conceived by
BeShT. Many of its tenets, such as transforming bad qualities into good ones
and joy in everything one does became essential elements of the principles
and way of life of that movement.
Nowadays the grave of the Holy SheLah in Tiberias is visited by numerous
believers, especially those who wish to find themselves a spouse or resolve
the problems of education of their children. To this end they recite the
wonderful prayer composed by R. Yishayahu. The tombstone on the grave, once
without any identifying inscription and later with one not befitting the
greatness of the man, was repaired in 1999 by the Horowitz Families
Association and a new inscription was made on its white marble:
THE HOLY SheLaH
Our teacher Rabbi YISHAYAHU ben Rabbi AVRAHAM HA-LEVI HOROWITZ
Blessed be the memory of the righteous one
Who served as head of the Rabbinical Court in the great communities of
Came from Prague to Eretz Israel in the year 5381 - 1621
Served as rabbi in the communities of Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias
Composed the books "TWO TABLETS OF THE COVENANT" and others
Passed away in Tiberias on the 21st of Nissan 5390
May his soul be bound in the bond of life.
The above is an extraction from the internet
version of a book written and published by
Shlomo Gurevich which is now
English as well as in
"Gurevich, Gurovich, Gurvich, Gorvich, Gurvitz, Horowitz and others. History
of A Great Family" (Haifa, 1999, ISBN 965-222-971-7)